In a speech yesterday Minister for the Armed Forces Nick Harvey both showed how ministers can stake out clearly different ground from the Conservatives and also gave a hint of major debates over nuclear weapons yet to come.
In his speech to the Franco-British Council Defence Co-operation Conference Nick Harvey said,
As you will know, the two parties in the UK coalition Government have a different approach to the renewal of the current Trident system, but we are jointly pledged to maintain Britain’s nuclear deterrent…
As a Liberal Democrat Minister in this UK Coalition Government, I have the freedom to explore and argue the case for an alternative successor to the planned replacement of Trident.
This is not Government policy, but I and my party colleagues would certainly be willing to explore the options for the UK and France to plan our successor programmes in closer co-ordination including, in the longer-term, the case for deeper co-operation on operational nuclear deterrence.
The background to this is the growing cooperation on nuclear matters which Harvey outlined:
Under [the Teutates arrangement], the UK and France will share facilities to maintain the safety of our independent nuclear deterrents.
Instead of building duplicate national facilities, we have agreed jointly to construct and operate a new Hydrodynamics Facility at Valduc in France and a new Technology Development Centre at Aldermaston in the UK. And we have moved quickly on this work – the facilities will be operational by 2015, with the first UK experiment time-tabled for 2017.
In combining our scientific and engineering talent and in sharing expensive equipment, we can sustain the expertise and capabilities required as responsible nuclear powers and potentially save considerable sums of money. And it will enable us to maintain the safety of our existing nuclear stockpile without breaching the conditions of the international treaties.
Let me stress that this does not threaten the independence of each country’s operational nuclear deterrent. This co-operation does not involve the sharing of any nuclear deterrent capability such as submarine patrols. But it does mark a willingness to co-operate in depth in an area that has traditionally been taboo.
Nick Harvey’s comments are designed to open up a range of possibilities, from future cooperation on submarine design through to much closer cooperation on operational matters.
Where on that spectrum the Liberal Democrats want the party’s position to be, and what views it wants its ministers to be promoting may, on past form, to be the cause of lively debate in the party. But it will be an important debate to have, especially as it is one area which not only is of great importance to the country but also is likely to be one where the two coalition parties disagree at the next general election.l